Sunday, April 28, 2013

The humorous novels of P.G. Wodehouse (Book review)

The British humorist P.G. Wodehouse reached the ripe old age of 93 as a living proof that laughing is good for you. That also goes for a regular life and constant work - Wodehouse continued writing novels to his last gasp, to a grand total of 100 published books. He seems to have been happiest when he sat behind his typewriter, something which reminds me of his character Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, who also felt most blissful when he could potter among his flowers or feed his Prize Pig. Writer and character share a large and amiable degree of unworldliness.

There is a high level of Britishness in Wodehouse's books and it therefore at first sight seems strange that he spent most of his life outside his native country - mainly in the U.S. where he settled for good from the 1950s on, but also in France. But then, the England Wodehouse describes never existed - although containing elements from pre-WWI Britain, it really is a "never never land" where there is no death or illness, no pain or suffering, no violence or war, no anxiety and no angst. Wodehouse lived through two world wars and a cold war, but these political realities left no traces whatsoever in his books. The biggest problems he addresses are the theft of a silver cow creamer, or how Bertie Wooster can extract himself from the clutches of another marriage-obsessed female. Wodehouse's tales are completely cut loose from reality, which is probably only possible when as a writer you possess a great deal of naivete.

That unworldliness was sometimes also Wodehouse's problem. In the 1940s, while living in France, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis; after his release in 1941 he was persuaded to tell about his experiences in a series of radio programs broadcast from Berlin. Wodehouse apparently saw that as a chance to show his stiff upper lip to his guardians and encourage the home front, but what he didn't realize was that after the war he would be seen as a collaborator.... (although he was officially exculpated). A similar story happened when he worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood in the 1920s. In a magazine interview he boasted that never in his life he had received such a huge salary for so little work (being often on standby); the next day he was fired by the studio. It could be from one of his stories...

Already in the 1930s Wodehouse was accused of always writing the same book with the same characters, and in the 1950s Kingsley Amis declared his books dead. Wrong: today, Wodehouse is alive and kicking. I think I understand why. In his best books, those written roughly from the 1920s through 1940s, Wodehouse reaches a level of absurdism and zaniness that can be found nowhere else. It doesn't matter that his plots are always the same, for the plot is irrelevant. Nobody cares that his characters do not develop, because who would want Jeeves to change? No, you read Wodehouse for the surreal language, the madcap dialogues. Never was absurdity expressed more beautifully. The Monty Python quality is very high.

What are the best books of Wodehouse? Among the hundred books, two series stand out: the "Jeeves novels," about the indolent aristocrat and inveterate bachelor Bertie Wooster and his personal valet, the ingenious gentleman butler Jeeves, and the "Blandings novels," about the absent-minded Ninth Earl of Emsworth, living at Blandings Castle, whose greatest enthusiasm in life is reserved for his flowers and his prize sow, the majestic Empress of Blandings.

One of the best "Jeeves novels" is Joy in the Morning. Trapped in the countryside, Bertie tries to help his friends and promote the course of true love, but ends up becoming the prey of all and sundry - as usual, only Jeeves can save him. A top "Blandings novel" is Summer Lightning, in which the prize-winning sow is stolen, causing uproar in the otherwise so peaceful castle where imposters gather. Here are my lists of best "Jeeves" books and best "Blandings" novels.

The best Jeeves books:
The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)
Very Good, Jeeves (1930)
Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
Thank You, Jeeves (1934)
The Code of the Woosters (1937)
Joy in the Morning (1947)
The Mating Season (1949)

The best Blandings books:
Something Fresh (1915)
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
Summer Lightning (1929)
Heavy Weather (1933)
Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)
Full Moon (1947)
Pigs Have Wings (1952)

Others: Psmith in the City (1910), Piccadilly Jim (1915).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cheese (1933) by Willem Elsschot (Best Novellas)

Being Dutch by birth, I love this cheesy novella which is Edam's great moment in world literature. Willem Elsschot (1882-1960; in real life called Alfons de Ridder) was a Belgian writer and businessman who because of the combination of these two functions, has been dubbed the “Flemish Italo Svevo.” Born in Antwerp, he also worked in Brussels, Paris and Rotterdam and managed his own advertising agency. More than his business endeavors, which he didn't enjoy so much – although he seems to have been quite successful – , his real vocation was literature. He wrote eleven short novels, notably Lijmen (1924), Kaas (1933), Tsjip (1934) and Het Been (1938). His main themes are business and family life and his stories are told in a mildly cynical style, a combination of comedy and pathos. His books also contain good sketches of life in Antwerp during the 1930s.

Cheese ("Kaas"; 1933) is a gentle fable, timeless in its skewering of the pretensions and pomposity of businessmen. Frans Laarmans, a humble shipping clerk in Antwerp, “getting on for fifty,” becomes the chief agent in Belgium and Luxembourg for a Dutch cheese company. Thrilled at the change in his status (and income), he goes on leave and sets up an office at home. He desperately wants to get some respect, as “thirty years of servility have naturally left their mark on me.”

Laarmans takes delivery of ten thousand full-cream wheels of this red-rinded Dutch delight. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods. He is more focused on setting up his office with a proper desk and typewriter, rather than doing the hard-selling that is needed. But as the bulk of the cheese sits in storage, crates and crates of it, the stinking and ripening substance starts to haunt him. And when his employer, the brusque Mr Hornstra, wires him to say he is coming to Antwerp to settle the first accounts, Laarmans panics...

Cheese is a gentle, humorous story of small-time ambition faced with too grand an opportunity, told with brisk efficiency. It is also a warning not to wander away too far from the trade we know.
English translation and preface by Paul Vincent. Published by Granta, 2002. Dutch original available here.

See my reviews on Goodreads, where this review has also been published.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Concertos of Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751)

The Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni is - like his countryman Boccherini - famous for a work he never wrote: the mawkish Adagio in G minor, which often is one of the few classical pieces people who never listen to classical music know. Well, it is a hoax, for it was composed in the 1950s by an Italian musicologist and researcher of Albinoni, whose shameful name I do not want to repeat. He falsely claimed to have discovered it in outline on an Albinoni manuscript from the bombed out Dresden State Library, but (of course) never produced any proof in the form of an underlying manuscript. Being a pastiche and therefore in fact almost a piece of light music, the Adagio became popular on TV and in pop music, not to forget film. It can't be erased from our cultural consciousness anymore, but remember one thing: it is a modern work that has nothing to do with the historical composer Albinoni!
So what are the achievements of the historical Albinoni?

Tomaso Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671, and achieved fame in many Italian cities but also in the rest of Europe - Bach knew and appreciated his music. Albinoni came from a wealthy family - his father was a maker of playing cards and Albinoni followed in this profession until middle age, when he became a full-time composer. He was thus a man of independent means, and never had to seek a position as musician in the church or at court. Perhaps that is the reason we know relatively little about his life. The instrument he played himself was the violin.

Albinoni wrote both operas and instrumental music - his vocal music was especially popular in Italy where he was in the first place seen as an opera composer - and the second category attracted in its printed editions great interest in northern Europe. When I saw that Albinoni was also a composer of opera and secular cantatas (he claimed himself to have written more than 80 operas), I thought: where is the revival? After all, thanks to amongst others Cecilia Bartoli, many of Vivaldi's so far forgotten operas are now available on CD. Then I saw to my regret that from Albinoni's fertile operatic output only seven works survive intact today, plus some loose arias from others. So Albinoni's posthumous reputation will of necessity remain influenced in favor of his instrumental work. But it is true that also his sonatas and concertos are imbued with a lyricism and breadth of phrase that are recognisably vocal in origin. By the way, Albinoni's wife - he married in 1705 - was an operatic soprano.

Albinoni's instrumental works were printed in nine collections, four of chamber music (Trio Sonatas Op 1, 1694; Balletti a Tre, Op 3, 1701; Trattenimenti Armonici Op. 6, 1711; Balletti e Sonate Op 8, 1722) and five for string ensemble (Sinfonie e Concerti a Cinque: Op 2, 1700; the rest all Concerti a Cinque: Op 5, 1707; Op 7, 1715; Op 9, 1722; Op 10, 1735/36). Besides these printed works of certain authenticity, we have many sonatas, sinfonias and concertos in manuscript and other printed editions not published by Albinoni himself, and here one has to thread carefully, for more than 25 works of those ascribed to Albinoni are on stylistic grounds deemed false by experts.

What is special about Albinoni's instrumental music? That is his pioneering work in the upcoming genre of the solo concerto - Albinoni came to maturity just after the first concertos were being written in Italy, and before his younger contemporary Vivaldi became active. The earliest concertos were in fact written in north Italy shortly before 1700, in an area that was the European center for the manufacture and playing of stringed instruments. The custom arose of using a principal violin distinct from the ordinary orchestral first violins and this led to the creation of the first true violin concertos. Alternative instruments extraneous to the string ensemble also followed in the solo position, and  so in the second decade of the 18th c. the oboe concerto was born. As wind instruments were more popular in Germany, it was the emigration of German wind players to the south that helped this development. What Albinoni is rightly famous for is being the composer of the first published oboe concertos: his Op. 7 of 1715 contains 8 concertos for single oboe, and 8 for two oboes. In Albinoni's oboe concertos the wind instrument functions, in its relationship to the strings, almost as a singer. At the same time they are concertos "with" rather than "for" oboes, in other words, the violin parts are also very important.

Generally speaking, the characteristics of Albinoni's concertos are: the fixed three movement plan of fast - slow - fast, which he helped establish; a strong influence from operatic music; a highly variable, unpredictable writing for the solo violin; transparent movement designs; a cool emotional climate punctuated by passionate interruptions; and a liking for counterpoint. All his works possess a great clarity.

Recommendations (all on period instruments):
  • Trio Sonatas Op. 1 by Parnassi Musici on CPO. The year 1694, when he turned 23, was an important year for Albinoni for it saw not only the performance of his first opera, but also the publication of his twelve trio sonatas Opus 1, which while formally under the influence of Corelli, show a firm command of form and technique, but above all, an own, unique style.
  • 12 Concerti a Cinque Op. 5 by the Collegium Musicum 90, conductor Simon Standage, on Chandos. Albinoni at his most natural and vital, in perfectly proportioned concertos for string orchestra in five parts (the first violins divided into two groups). In his later concertos, he would be more expansive and varied, but never as fresh as here.
  • Complete Oboe Concertos (the single oboe concertos from Op 7 and Op 9) by the Collegium Musicum 90, conductor Simon Standage, on Chandos (with Anthony Robson, oboe). Albinoni had a great skill in writing charming and fascinating melodies, and in weaving complicated patterns, but he also shows a marked feel for proportion and a wealth of imagination. Op 7 has a greater - almost Vivaldian - brevity, while the concertos in Op 9 are more richly elaborated. The jewel of the slow movements is Op 9 No 2, a long-breathed cantilena of the oboe set against an unchanging background of undulating violin semiquavers.
  • Double Oboe Concertos and String Concertos Vol I and II (from Op 7 and Op 9) by the Collegium Musicum 90, conductor Simon Standage on Chandos, (with Anthony Robson and Catherine Latham, oboe). The other concertos from Op. 7 and 9. In the double concertos, the two oboes tend to stick closely together, often playing in unison or chains of thirds. In Op 7 they also frequently imitate the sound of the natural trumpet. There are also four string concertos of which Op 7.1 is in the style of an operatic overture. In contrast, the first work of Op 9 is a true violin concerto.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fujita Art Museum and Fujitatei-ato Park, Osaka

One of the most powerful early Japanese business tycoons was Fujita Denzaburo (1841-1912), who set up a conglomerate (Fujita-gumi) of companies active in mining, civil engineering, railways, electrical power generation, finance, textiles and newspapers. Mr Fujita, who was the first commoner to receive the title of "Baron," was not only a sharp businessman, he was also a cultivated person who collected art and practised the tea ceremony - he was known for his lavish spending to acquire expensive tea wares.

Fujita Art Museum and Fujitatei-ato Park, Osaka 
[The Fujita Art Museum - storehouse and pagoda]

Born in the castle town of Hagi in the Choshu fief in 1841 as the son of a sake brewer, Mr. Fujita as a young man came to Osaka to go into business. As the oligarchical Meiji government was for fifty percent formed by politicians from his old fief Choshu, we may safely assume that his "Old Boys network" was of prime importance in helping his businesses rake in profits. Besides buying magnificent art works, Mr Fujita also established villas in several prime spots in Japan. They were after his death renovated as the Taikoen in Osaka, the Chinzanso in Tokyo, the Hotel Fujita in Kyoto and the Kowakien in Hakone. 

Fujita Art Museum and Fujitatei-ato Park, Osaka 
[Fujita Art Museum seen from the Fujitatei-ato Park]

The Taikoen stands on the spot where his main residence was and here one also finds the Fujita Art Museum as well as a remnant of the original gardens. In WWII the baronial mansion was destroyed in an air raid, but fortunately the stone kura in the garden containing the artworks remained intact, and that storehouse now serves as a sort of "retro style" museum building. Through a corridor of what looks like an old school building, one comes to the storehouse. Inside, this has been beautifully fitted out with wood. Although there is an upper floor, too, the storehouse is quite small. That gives ample time to view at leisure the exquisite art works exhibited here, but it also leaves one with a feeling of disappointment: when you know how rich the total collection is, the amount on display during the two short annual exhibitions, is rather tiny (as is usual in small private museums in Japan, there is no standing exhibition).

Fujita Art Museum and Fujitatei-ato Park, Osaka 
[Fujitatei-ato Park, in the background Osaka Business Park]

The collection numbers approximately 5,000 articles and comprises 9 National Treasures and 48 Important Cultural Properties. While tea utensils form the heart of the collection (as in the case of most other Meiji industrialists), there are also excellent Chinese and Japanese-style paintings, calligraphy, sculpture and lacquerware. A famous piece is the "Yohen Tenmoku-glaze Tea Bowl" (one of the three in Osaka museums), possessing a beautiful iridescent bluish gloss on its black glaze – as if you are looking at the starry firmament. Also famous is the "Picture Scroll based on the Diary of Murasaki Shikibu," the first part of a hand scroll in Yamato-e style from the early Kamakura period (13th c.). The "Genjo Sanzo-e" (“Illustrated hand scroll of the Monk Xuanzang,” 14th c.) is a set of 12 picture scrolls depicting the life of Xuanzang, the Chinese Tang dynasty monk who made an arduous journey through Central Asia to collect Buddhist scriptures and artifacts in India. There are Chinese-style ink paintings ("New Moon over a Brushwood Gate," 1405), a sutra box decorated in maki-e lacquer with scenes from the Lotus Sutra (11th c.) and many other treasures. As the collection puts the emphasis on tea utensils, one will often encounter chanoyu bowls, flower vases, water containers, and incense boxes. Whatever is on display in this museum, the value is always high.

Yodo River Walk in spring 
[Sakura along the Yodo River on the way
from the Fujita Art Museum to Nakanoshima]

Although the museum also has a small garden with a beautiful pagoda brought down from Mt Koya, adjacent to it lies the large Fujitatei-ato Park, containing the remnants of the original gardens of Baron Fujita. These are now under the management of the City of Osaka as part of Sakuranomiya Park. Interesting is that Mr Fujita built his mansion on the site of Daichoji Temple, which figures in Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play from 1720 "Ten no Amashima Suicides." The present gardens, with a grassy green and flowering trees, are pleasant as a city park, but not very special from the point of view of garden architecture, as perhaps too much was destroyed.

Where: 2 min walk from exit 3 of Osakajo-Kitazume St on the JR Tozai line. For the museum, turn left after exiting the station; for the gardens, turn right (the entrance of the gardens is therefore on the opposite side of the entrance to the museum). On the other side of the road opposite the museum stands the Taikoen restaurant, now mainly a venue for weddings. 
When: Note that the museum is only open for the spring (early March to early June) and autumn exhibition (early September to early December), when about 40-50 pieces from the collection are exhibited according to various themes. 10:00-16:00, closed on Monday (unless a National Holiday, when closed the following day). The gardens are in principle everyday open, 10:00-16:00.
How much: Museum JPY 800; gardens free. Website.
NOTE: The Fujita Art Museum is closed until 2020 for rebuilding.

Bach Cantatas (49): Trinity XVI

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity introduces the story of the raising of the dead from Luke, which in Bach's time was understood symbolically to represent man's resurrection to eternal life - and, in order to be soon resurrected, the wish to die and be free from the "sinful world." Not coincidentally, all cantatas for this day are permeated with the sounds of tolling bells.
    There are four cantatas for this Sunday.

    Ephesians 3:13–21, "Paul praying for the strengthening of faith in the congregation of Ephesus."
    Luke 7:11–17, "Raising of the young man from Nain."

    Cantata Studies:
    Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

    • Komm, du süße Todesstunde, BWV 161, 6 October 1715

      Aria (alto, recorders, strings): Komm, du süße Todesstunde
      Recitativo (tenor): Welt, deine Lust ist Last
      Aria (tenor, strings): Mein Verlangen ist, den Heiland zu umfangen
      Recitativo (alto, recorders, strings): Der Schluß ist schon gemacht
      Aria (choir, recorders, strings): Wenn es meines Gottes Wille
      Chorale (recorders): Der Leib zwar in der Erden

      ("Come, o sweet hour of death") Often called the best cantata Bach wrote in his period in Weimar. The text is by Salomo Franck. In line with the readings for this Sunday, the cantata is steeped in the longing for death, typical of Lutheranism. In the opening aria death is metaphorically represented as honey in the mouth of the lion, the sweetness behind terror - an allusion to the story of Samson's marriage in which the carcass of a lion provides food for Samson and his parents (Judg. 14). This sweetness is given voice by the recorders, quiet instruments often used in works with texts about death. During the aria, the organ now and then intones the passion chorale ("Herzlich tut mich verlangen," by Hassler) to remind listeners that Jesus has gone on the same journey. This plea for death is far from modern sensibilities, but it should not be understood as a morbid "death wish, " because it is based on the ideology of the afterlife, making it possible to pass from life to death to afterlife in Heaven. The next two movements make further clear that the believer's desire is not for death itself, but for the glory of being with Christ. The following tenor recitative portrays the world as a place of deception: its pleasure ("Lust") turns into trouble ("Last"); its sugar is poison, its roses bring forth thorns. The agony eventually turns into a beautiful arioso "I desire to pasture soon with Christ. I desire to depart from this world." The "longing" of the tenor aria is hypnotically symbolized by the magical and even ecstatic strings, which literally "sigh" on the word "desire" ("Verlangen"). The alto recitative is accompanied by all instruments, mimicking sleep (in a downward movement) - almost becoming a lullaby - , the waking up (a fast movement upwards), and at the end of the aria, funeral bells in the recorders and pizzicato of the strings to symbolize the passage through death to eternal life. The fifth movement is a cheerful, childlike song set for four part chorus - note the gorgeously warbling recorders. The emphasis is on heavenly joy, the body is regarded as a weight ("Last") which is gladly discarded and the spirit as a guest which only temporarily was housed in the body and now is free to live eternally in heaven. In the closing chorale - a version of the passion chorale - these same recorders float hauntingly above the chorus, as if to give expression to the idea of the new, transfigured Self.  This indeed was material that gave Bach inspiration.

    • Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95, 12 September 1723

      Chorale e recitativo (tenor): Christus, der ist mein Leben / Mit Freuden, ja mit Herzenslust / Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
      Recitativo (soprano): Nun, falsche Welt
      Chorale (soprano): Valet will ich dir geben
      Recitativo (tenor): Ach könnte mir doch bald so wohl geschehn.
      Aria (tenor): Ach, schlage doch bald, selge Stunde
      Recitativo (bass): Denn ich weiß dies
      Chorale: Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist

      ("Christ, he is my life") A sort of experimental cantata that contains four chorales, each with their associated melody, ingeniously sewn together. The theme is again death as welcome release from the travails of this life. The first two chorales are incorporated in the first chorus, beginning - after an instrumental introduction - with a setting of the chorale “ Christus, der ist mein Leben” (1609, by Melchior Vulpius) for two oboes d'amore, strings and chorus. The choral melody is sustained in the soprano line and the whole seems like a small concerto. Note the slowdown in tempo on the line "Sterben ist mein Gewinn" ("Death is my reward"). This semi-concerto is suddenly broken up by a declamatory recitative, which leads into the next chorale "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin" (1524, a paraphrase of the "Nunc dimittis" by Luther), a sturdy hymn that finishes this superbly constructed movement, full of modulations. A simple soprano recitative bids farewell to the transient pleasures of this world, leading directly into the third choral "Valet will ich dir geben" (1613, by Valerius Herberger), again for soprano accompanied by two playful oboes d'amore. Here the music has a certain dance-like quality. The next two movements are for tenor, voicing man's longing for death on earth and eternal life instead. A tenor recitative leads into the only aria in the cantata, also for tenor and dominated by the accompanying oboes. It is a piece of outstanding beauty, in which the pictorial imagery of the tolling funeral bells plays a prominent role. As is usual, these bells are heard in the pizzicato in the strings. The high tenor line is urgent and declamatory and also addresses these bells, urging them to strike quickly "the very last bell-stroke." A bass recitative underlines faith in eternal life, after which the cantata ends with a further chorale setting, "Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist," (1560, by Nikolaus Herman), enriched by a soaring additional violin part to symbolize the risen Christ.

    • Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? BWV 8, 24 September 1724

      Chorus: "Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?"
      Aria: "Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen"
      Recitative: "Zwar fühlt mein schwaches Herz"
      Aria: "Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen!"
      Recitative: "Behalte nur, o Welt, das Meine!"
      Chorale: "Herrscher über Tod und Leben" 

      ("Dearest God, when will I die?") Based on a new chorale by Casper Neumann (1697), a sort of "popular" music of Bach's time, which is paraphrased in an impressionistic way. The opening chorus with its plucked strings for the sounding of the death knell is a surprisingly warm and affectionate piece of music, with twittering birds in the flute. It has been aptly described as a "church-yard full of flowers in the springtime." The alto, tenor, and bass voices sing in free counterpoint, while the sopranos answer with the chorale in long notes. The theme is a common one in the cantatas: when shall we take leave of the sufferings of mortal life and achieve eternal life in heaven? The bells continue tolling in the tenor aria where the oboe d'amore has a beautiful line. The mood is of a mildly melancholy and yearning. After a recitative by the alto, which for a moment reminds us of the terror of death, the transition to heaven is achieved in an almost "jolly" bass aria, again with flute accompaniment. It almost seems a movement from a lost flute concerto, a wonderful, optimistic piece in the tempo of a gigue. After another recitative, by piping soprano, the cantata closes with a chorale setting, which prolongs the friendly atmosphere of this entire cantata.

    • Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende? BWV 27, 6 October 1726

      Chorale e recitativo (soprano, alto, tenor): Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?
      Recitativo (tenor): Mein Leben hat kein ander Ziel
      Aria (alto): Willkommen! will ich sagen
      Recitativo (soprano): Ach, wer doch schon im Himmel wär
      Aria (bass): Gute Nacht, du Weltgetümmel
      Chorale: Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde

      ("Who knows how near is my end?") An late cantata in almost experimental vein. The cantata opens with a melancholic, limping chorale sung block style by the chorus but interspersed with recitative. After a tenor recitative, the alto sings a compelling aria with sparkling accompaniment by English horn and organ ("Welcome! I will say, when Death steps to my bed"). This movement may have been adapted from a lost concerto (for viola da gamba?). The soprano recitative that follows is operatic in character with the strings illustrating the wings to fly to heaven. The bass aria is accompanied by strings and continuo and alternates between a lyrical sighing line tinged with regret (to the words "Gute Nacht") and an agitated militaristic string figure (to the words "du Weltgetümmel"), illustrating the conflict between heaven and the chaotic world. The chorale, a five-part setting ("Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde"), is the only chorale harmonization in all the cantatas not by Bach: he takes over a 1682 harmonization by Johannes Rosenmüller, with a slightly archaic harmony, and that proves to be a perfect close to this cantata.

    Bach Cantata Index

    Sunday, April 7, 2013

    Ohatsu Tenjin Shrine, Osaka

    Popularly known as "Ohatsu Tenjin," the official name of this shrine is Tsuyu Tenjinsha. The founding goes back to the now grey times more than 1,300 years ago when metropolitan Osaka was a bay with scattered islands and sandbanks. It is difficult to imagine among today's profusion of concrete and glass, not to forget all those humans moving around among them. It was a quiet and lonely place when our shrine was founded on one of these islands, Sone-su. In the 11th c. things improved when the island became part of the mainland thanks to a land reclamation project. A village named Sonezaki was establsihed and the shrine became the guardian of the community. When the railways came in the late 19th century, the area turned into the gateway to Osaka, but the shrine still guards the surrounding area.

    [The shrine building]

    At the origin of the shrine stands the leading court scholar Sugawara Michizane. Falsely accused, this Minister of the Right was exiled to Dazaifu in Kyushu. On his way in exile, traveling down from the capital Kyoto, he visited this shrine and composed a poem which means something like: "My sleeve is soaked with dew formed by the tears I shed recalling Kyoto." "Dew" is "tsuyu" - and so the official name of the shrine was born, Tsuyu Tenjinsha. Michizane would go on to be deified as Tenjin, the patron saint of scholarship.

    [Statue of Tokubei and Ohatsu]

    Now the popular name. "Ohatsu" is the female protagonist in a play written for the puppet theater (bunraku or ningyo joruri) by master playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, called Sonezaki Shinju ("The Love Suicides of Sonezaki"). This work relates the tragic love story of Tokubei, a shop clerk, and Ohatsu, a courtesan, who seeing no way out for their love (it was socially accepted to visit a courtesan, but falling in love with her would lead to ostracism - like in 19th c. Europe) were driven to suicide in the woods of the shrine grounds - woods which do not exist anymore, by the way. The play was based on a real incident that happened in 1703 and became tremendously popular, bringing many new visitors to the shrine, who started calling it "Ohatsu Tenjin." Because of the association with the love story of Tokubei and Ohatsu, even today many couples wishing to have a strong bond visit to pray (enmusubi) - although I would think that the affair between the puppet lovers is not a good omen as it ended rather badly!

    [The shopping arcade]

    The present shrine buildings date from 1957 - they were rebuilt after their destruction in WWII. The area around the shrine with the Ohatsu Tenjindori Shopping Arcade today has a pleasantly retro atmosphere. It is a warm and comfortable place and the shrine itself is always busy with visitors.
    Where: Near JR Osaka St, Umeda St on the Hankyu, Hanshin and subway Midosuji lines, and Higashi Umeda St on the subway Tanimachi line.
    When: The shrine grounds are always open.
    How much: Free.
    Note: On the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month, the shrine holds a flea market wherein about 30 antique dealers participate. On the 3rd Friday and Saturday of July the summer festival is celebrated, with lion dances, umbrella dances and big drums.


    Saturday, April 6, 2013

    The Best Cello Concertos

    Many lovers of classical music feel that the violoncello with its warm, deep tone is the most beautiful instrument in the family of the strings. The number of concertos written for it is much smaller than those for the violin or the piano, but regrets are unnecessary: after all, many piano and violin concertos are empty virtuoso stuff, while in the case of the contemplative cello, there is a larger percentage of serious music.

    The cello was invented in Italy around 1660, where Vivaldi was the first composer to create a large oeuvre for the instrument. It took time to conquer Northern Germany, however, where the viola da gamba ruled supreme (viz. the viola da gamba concertos by Telemann) – the six Bach Suites for Solo Cello are the exception rather than the rule – in the 6th Brandenburg Concerto Bach used at the same time both the modern cello and older viola da gambas as well as violones, demonstrating that these instruments still peacefully coexisted.

    The middle of the 18th c. saw several composers of cello music, especially in southern Europe (a host of almost unknown composers, such as Giovanni Battista Cirri or Leonardo Leo), but also in the German lands, such as C.P.E. Bach. A great cello promoter in the 2nd half of the 18th c. was the Italian Luigi Boccherini, who worked at the Spanish court. In Austria at that time, Haydn, Wagenseil, Hofmann and Pleyel were active. The instrument was constantly used in chamber music, especially in the string quartet that had been established by Haydn, and also became a fixture of the classical orchestra.

    But the first half of the 19th c. saw a tailing off of the repertoire. This was the age of the great virtuoso players, starting on the piano with Beethoven and Liszt, and Paganini on the violin. On the cello, that sort of virtuoso music was not (yet) possible – see the lyrical and deliciously unheroic concerto by Schumann from around the middle of the century. In the second half of the 19th c. the fate of the cello as a solo instrument became brighter, with the famous Dvorak concerto, the activities of cellist/composers like David Popper, music by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, etc. The cello by this time had also been redesigned, to produce a wider range and brighter tone. But the great age of the cello would be the 20th c., when the instrument was promoted by cellist/composers like Klengel, and when great virtuosi as Casals, Rostropovitch, Piatogorsky, Starker and many others were active - and through their flawless technique and championing of repertoire inspired composers to write for their instrument. Cello concertos and sonatas became standard in every composer's work. The recent interest in authentic music has also led to a revival of the baroque cello, with players such as Anner Bylsma.

    The list below is a personal assessment - and I have to confess I am not so fond of the all-too popular Dvorak, Haydn, Saint-Saens and Elgar concertos, probably due to over-exposure (on top of that, there are authenticity problems with the Haydn concertos).

    Here is my list of favorite cello concertos:
    1. Vivaldi (1678-1741), Concerto per due celli in sol minore RV 531.
      Not one but two cellos, a true and awesome double concerto, leading to interesting timbres on this prodigious instrument – starting with an impressive low rumbling, a long fantasia-like introduction over a continuo pedal note. Vivaldi wrote more than 25 cello concertos but this is the one to single out. The concerto exemplifies Vivaldi's liking for homo-tonality – the casting for each movement is in the same key, g minor. The retention of this key for the slow movement enhances the brooding, sombre mood of the work. Also note the typically Vivaldian canonic exchanges in this movement, scored only for the two cellos with continuo.
      Recording listened to: The Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseu-Lyre (period instruments).

    2. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Cello Concerto in A major Wq. 172/H439. The eldest surviving son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach and the best known of all Bach's offspring for his musical prowess. Received his musical education from his father. C.P.E. Bach was a creative composer who wrote in an original and personal style. Among the 50 concertos he composed are three cello concertos, usually thought to have been written around 1750. This was not only the time of his father's death, but also a period which marked the end of the late-baroque era and the start of the classical period in music. C.P.E. Bach's forward-looking music provides a link between those two styles - it is elegant yet expressive and emotional and at times even sounds quirky! My favorite among the three cello concertos is the one in A major because of its melancholic, dark timbred Largo - one of the best examples of the "Empfindsamkeit" in music.
      Recording listened to: Anner Bylsma with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, dir. Gustav Leonhardt, on Virgin Classics (period instruments).

    3. Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), Cello Concerto No. 7 in G major (G 480). Luigi Boccherini was another great cello master – the instrument features prominently in all his music. His most famous concerto is one he never wrote – a pot-pourri from his G480 and G482 concertos concocted by a late 19th century German cellist – a hoax that unfortunately is still being performed (always by orchestras with modern instruments – two of these shamefully romanticized versions still around are by Jacqueline du Pre and Yo-yo Ma) but should be forgotten as soon as possible. So go for the real Boccherini in a performance on period instruments and in authentic style. Twelve concertos are known, besides 34 cello sonatas and many quintets with double cello parts. Boccherini has a great gift for lyricism and that is especially evident in the adagio of the present concerto, where the singing cello playing in its high register - a novelty at that time - is only accompanied by wavering strings.
      Recording listened to: Anner Bylsma with the Concerto Amsterdam, dir. Jaap Schroder, on Teldec (period instruments).

    4. Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 129. Schumann called the concerto "Concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment," which explains the perfect balance between soloist and orchestra. The cello part displays little in the way of virtuoso writing and the concert has an introspective quality which prevents it from revealing its treasures easily. But after a few hearings, Schumann's vein of lyricism becomes irresistible. Composed just before the Third Symphony in an astonishingly brief two-week period shortly after Schumann’s move to Düsseldorf in 1850, a time of optimism and creativity inspired by his new surroundings. The concerto is composed in three interconnected movements performed without a break. The beginning of the cello's opening theme in the dark first movement returns in the woodwind toward the end of the second movement. In that slow movement the cello sings in great lied-like melodies. The cadenza of the third movement is fully written out and accompanied by the orchestra. This final movement is full of youthful enthusiasm and ardour and allows the concerto to take wing. A neglected masterpiece.
      Recommended recording:
      Mischa Maisky and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon; or Natalia Gutman and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, dir. Claudio Abbado, also on Deutsche Grammophon

    5. Eugen D'Albert (1864-1932), Concert for Violoncello and Orchestra in C major, Op. 20. Eugen D'Albert was born in Glasgow as the son of a German ballet composer of French and Italian parentage and an English mother. A child prodigy on the piano, he became Franz Liszt's favorite disciple and regarded Germany and especially Berlin as his true home. He led an unsettled and hectic life as a travelling performer, but gradually found more time for composition, not only for his own instrument but in various genres, including opera. In spite of its technical prowess, Eugen D’Albert’s cello concerto from 1899 favors the anti-heroic style and possesses an almost classical noblesse, so it can be said to have the Schumann concerto in its background rather than, for example, the boisterous Dvorak piece. The lack of effect-seeking may also have been influenced by the cellist to whom it was dedicated: Hugo Becker, a renowned chamber musician and university lecturer, who eschewed idle brilliance. The concerto – its several movements fused into one in the Lisztian style - is notable for the quiescent, almost speculative nature of the solo line, and the heights to which the singing tone of the cello rises. The slow movement features lively wind writing, after which the finale blazes away with tuneful material. A happy and entertaining concerto.
      Recommended recording:
      Alban Gerhardt with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra dir. Carlos Kalmar on Hyperion.

    6. Julius Klengel (1859-1933), Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra No. 4 Op. 37 in B minor (1904). Julius Klengel (1859-1933) was one of the most important figures in the history of the cello - he can even be called an “institution.” He studied composition in his native Leipzig and made his solo début at 15 while a member of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, whose ranks he had joined two years earlier. His pupils at the Leipzig Conservatoire included some of the most prominent players of the twentieth century. He composed quite widely. Reger was a particularly good friend and colleague, but Klengel was also on excellent terms with Brahms and Taneyev. His most important work is the Concerto in B minor, a piece saturated with temperament and melodiousness, not only virtuoso music but also an extraordinary fine piece of work. The first movement has a supple melodic construction, full of flowing song-like passages – the recapitulation of the first subject has been omitted. The second movement is a romantic, pastoral intermezzo with a spooky scherzo at its heart, and the finale is animated and full of exuberance. A hugely likeable piece that is almost unknown.
      Recommended recording:
      Xenia Jankovich with the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR dir. Bjarte Engeset on CPO.

    7. Frederick Delius (1862-1934), Cello Concerto (1915). Those looking for grandiose concertos with mighty perorations should look elsewhere - this concerto, too, is for listeners happy to indulge in less demonstrative beauty. The lyrical music invites you to step into Delius’s garden of delights on an imaginary warm sultry afternoon, to doze and dream. The cello concerto was Delius's own favourite of his four concertos, due mainly to its melodic invention. Written in 1921 it was the last work that Delius was able to compose in his own hand before illness crippled him. Dedicated to Beatrice Harrison. The concerto is a predominantly pastoral and dreamy work, but certainly not lacking in invention. Its broad melodies suggest "the after-glow of the sun sinking.."
      Recommended recording:
      Paul Watkins with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, dir. Andrew Davis on Chandos.

    8. Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Cello Concerto (1929). Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France yet maintained Swiss citizenship. A member of the group Les Six, he wrote the present concerto in 1929, at a time when he was strongly focused on writing scores for the theater. A concise concerto in a classical style, in the form of a divertimento. The concerto starts with an engaging moment, a brief cello melody against muted strings, lyrical and languorous. This is soon interrupted by humorous interventions, after which the cello adopts a swinging, jazzy persona. In the lento the cello plays a lament against a soft and gentle background, but the mood collapses into loud chaos. The finale blasts away with brisk and rocking music. A varied and fascinating concerto with a colorful atmosphere.
      Recommended recording:
      Julian Lloyd Webber with the English Chamber Orchestra dir. Yan Pascal Tortelier on Philips.

    9. Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1936). Early Hovhaness that miraculously survived the destruction of his pre-war years work by the composer himself. Rightfully so: this is already vintage Hovhaness, with luscious Oriental melodies. The composer’s signature is clearly audible in the sequences of rich, sonorous chords and the evocative use of old modes. The fusing of musical elements from different cultures and different times, including non-Western ones, is typical of Hovhaness. Where it differs from his later music, is the comparative lack of contrapuntal thinking. The work was written in 1936, but first performed in 1970. It is laid out in three movements, as usually with Hovhaness in the slow-fast-slow mold. Much of the music is serenely liturgical in character and there are also instances where birdsong is evoked. A wonderful discovery.
      Recommended recording:
      Janos Starker with the Seattle Symphony dir. Dennis Russell Davis on Naxos (world première recording).

    10. Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 66 (1944). Autumnal is the word, not as the season of storms, but of forests full of red and yellow foliage, burnished by the low sun... The piece is among the late works of the composer and its themes contain various folk songs. The concerto is in two movements: Lento ma non troppo and Allegro vivace - the arc of the work is essentially slow-fast-slow. Myaskovsky's scoring in the first movement is inventive and often magical, while the cello is full of elegiac strain. The movement starts with a melancholy introduction. In the more propulsive middle section the movement is largely carried by the orchestra. A profound and sensitive work.
      Recommended recording: Alexander Ivashkin with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra dir. Valeri Polyansky on Chandos.

    11. Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 22 (1945). A concerto without big tunes, but with an overall gentle atmosphere. Barber was commissioned to write his concerto for Raya Garbousova, a Russian cellist, by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The first movement makes the impression of a scherzo where juggling is going on with parts of melodies until a lovingly shaped chanting theme arises. The andante is dreamily and rhapsodic, and the finale is playful and light. The concerto makes considerable play of the higher registers of the instrument. Despite initial success, and the receipt of the Fifth Annual Award of the Music Critics Circle of New York, the concerto has established itself only at the margins of the repertoire, for one reason because of the high technical demands.
      Recommended recording:
      Wendy warner with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, dir. Martin Alsop on Naxos.

    12. Mieczysław Weinberg (also Moisey or Moishe Vainberg; 1919-1996), Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 42 (1948). Besides this concert, the Russian composer of Polish-Jewish origin also wrote 24 preludes for cello and 6 cello sonatas. Previously almost unknown, he now is regarded as the third great Soviet composer after Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He was the friend and protégée of Shostakovich. This concerto has a Jewish folk character especially in the second movement with its imitation of a "klezmer" band. It is a concerto that unabashedly exposes its heart, going full circle from beginning to end.
      Recommended recording:
      Claes Gunnarsson with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra dir. Thord Svetlund on Chandos.

    13. Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), Concerto para Violonchelo y Orchestra No. 2 (1953). The most significant South-American composer of art music of the 20th century, known for his fusion of classical music with folk elements, in such novel compositions as the Choros and Bachianes Brasileiras. This concerto was written for and first performed by Aldo Parisot. This is a four-movement work, compact and well structured from the songful and heartfelt Allegro onwards. The work opens with a kind of ruminative quasi-cadenza for the cellist. The second movement evokes Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The Scherzo has an engagingly brash folkloric lilt and the vibrant and rhythmic finale is highly enjoyable.
      Recommended recording:
      Antonio Meneses with the Orquestra Sinfonica de Galicia dir. Victor Pablo Perez on Auvidis.

    14. William Walton (1902-1983), Cello Concerto (1956). Often called a "gem," and considered as the best British cello concerto, above Bax, Bliss, Finzi, Moeran and even Elgar. Written in response to a commission from Gregor Piatigorsky. The first movement is lyrical, it even starts hauntingly mysteriously, the cello playing a long-spun theme over the plucked notes of the strings. The following second movement is a Scherzo, Allegro appassionato, centered on a lyrical trio. Even in this movement Walton refrains from using the tutti. The concerto ends with a theme and four improvisations, two for cello alone and two for the orchestra. The main impression of this movement, slow for a finale, is again lyrical, although a wide mood is covered before returning to the opening idea of the first movement. A concerto with distinctive melodies and full of subtle syncopation and emphasis - typically Walton.
      Recommended recording:
      Tim Hugh with the English Northern Philharmonia dir. Paul Daniel on Naxos.

    15. Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, No. 1, Op. 107 (1959). The greatest cello concerto ever. Period. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his popular First Cello Concerto for Rostropovich in 1959. The soloist occupies centre stage and is accompanied by a relatively small orchestra with double woodwind and no brass except for one horn - very active in the first movement. The opening movement is harsh and restless. Shostakovich suggested that it was a "scherzo-like march." The second, slow movement is meditative and poignant - a personal reflection. The third movement is entirely given over to the cadenza with the soloist musing intensely over material already stated while in the violent and even shattering finale everything goes down the drain in a sort of Dance Macabre / Dies Irae that reminds me of the final movement of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. This is truly sublime music.
      Recommended recording:
      Mstislav Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra dir. Seiji Ozawa on Erato; or Mischa Maisky with the London Symphony Orchestra dir Michael Tilson Thomas on Deutsche Grammophon.

    16. Miklos Rosza (1907-1995), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1968). Written after Rosza's retirement from scoring Hollywood movies and dedicated to Janos Starker. A splendidly moody piece inspired by the composer's Middle-European background. The first movement has dark-hued lyrical passages for the orchestra and virtuoso passages for the soloist, weaving a counterpoint underneath the theme played by the orchestra. The second movement features an impassioned cello set against a misterioso accompaniment, in a set of variations. The finale is a tense rondo, ending in an idyllic mood, with soft, high trills. A big, modern piece.
      Recommended recording:
      Lynn Harrell with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra dir. Yoel Levi on Telarc.

    17. Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain" (1970). Dutilleux writes in a very individual style which is endlessly fascinating and strangely addictive in this concerto called "a whole distant world..." His idiom is very contemporary but also very accessible. There is always something to interest to the ear - constantly shifting, scintillating patterns, weird glissandos, pointillist colorings, etc. The cello concerto was a commission from Rostropovich, who also premiered the work. The title of the concerto, and of its five movements, are taken from Baudelaire. Tout un monde lointain is a nocturnal, mysterious work with a delicate orchestration and an eerily beautiful, yet highly virtuoso solo part. While most of the concerto is introspective and meditative, it also has occasional outbursts of violence and a frantic build-up to the ambiguous, suspended finale. The opening 'Enigme' (Enigma) is scherzo-like, 'Regard' (Gaze) is introspective, inhabiting a strange, remote soundscape. Meditative, but somewhat warmer is 'Mirroirs' (Mirrors). 'Houles' (Surges) is a seascape with the wind whipping the crests of the waves. 'Hymn' gathers together the preceding material. Wonderful music by a perfectionist who has only allowed a small number of his works to be published, and often considered as Dutilleux' best work.
      Recommended recording:
      Mstislav Rostropovitch with the Orchestre de Paris dir. Serge Baudo on EMI Classics.